On paper the first round match between defending champion Rafael Nadal and John Isner was the match most likely to be problematic for a top seed in the draw. Nadal’s concern over the danger posed by the huge serving John Isner, ranked 39 in the world, proved to be well founded as the American had Nadal under serious threat of a first round defeat on his ‘home’ turf.
Nadal had never played a five set match at Roland Garros prior to today. Nadal had never lost a set in his first round matches in Paris before today. John Isner has changed that but it was Nadal who eventually disarmed Isner 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 after four hours of play.
Everyone knows Nadal loves a nice cross court winner but against an opponent who is 206cm tall his best bet were some down the line shots to keep the ball out of Isners mighty wing span. Isner courageously defended multiple break points with some serve and volley play.
It was Nadal who drew first blood for a 4-3 lead and held to take the set 6-4 in 46 minutes.
The thing that makes Rafael Nadal special is his spin makes the ball so much heavier to return and he manages to get the ball to really jump up off the court which means most players are hitting outside of their comfort zone up around shoulder height. With Isner being so tall that particular advantage was almost non existent.
The Spaniard broke John in the opening game of the second set but as the length of Rafa’s shot dropped off and Isner pushed and broke Nadal, the American to level at 4-4.
With Rafa standing a good five meters behind the baseline to receive serve Isner managed to find some short angles that were just out of the reach of the Spaniard. Isner seemed to have realised that with Nadal deep in the court if he came into the net and dropped the ball inside the service box that Nadal was going to have extreme difficulty. With only four aces under his belt but a huge number of un-returnable bombs on his side Isner took a 6-5 lead in the second set, Nadal forcing a tiebreak.
Two forehands errors from Nadal and the booming serve of Isner got John to a 4-1 advantage as Nadal tried and failed to go down the line with his backhand.
A forehand was belted down the line in the next point from Nadal causing his opponent to slide and lose his balance for Rafa to get to 2-4. Isner then came to the net, Nadal still struggling with his passing shots allowed Isner to serve for the second set at 5-2 and he made no mistake.
Isner, growing in confidence, started to thump anything short from Nadal and follow it in to the net and the tactic worked well for him because Nadal kept dropping them short. Isner continued to swing freely as Nadal found himself at 5-5 desperate to avoid another tiebreak knowing full well that he could find himself down two sets to one and feeling a little déjà vu from that Robin Soderling defeat in 2009.
The huge serves of Isner got him out of trouble on two set points and allowed him to force another tiebreak. It was the volleys and huge serves of John Isner that got him two mini breaks and a 4-1 lead, the world number one in huge strife. Rafa never recovered and found himself in a horribly familiar position (think Soderling 2009).
Isner opened his campaign for a third consecutive set by having the huge advantage of serving first. In the third game Nadal tried to ‘Vamos’ himself into action and it worked. Isner double faulted on Nadal’s second chance to break and the Spaniard went ahead 2-1.
Driven by the lull from Isner and the break of serve Nadal broke again and confidently served for the fourth set and took it 6-2 after over three hours of play. He did not commit a single unforced error in the fourth set.
Nadal would have been relieved by the knowledge that a fifth set in a grand slam must be won by two games and that he couldn’t find himself in another tense tiebreak. He must also have been comforted by his 14-3 five set win-loss record.
When Nadal broke to love to go ahead 2-1 in the fifth set, the Spaniard let the packed stadium know he had no intention of going home today with a roaring “Si!” that was by far the loudest I have ever heard from the world number one so clearly.
Pumped, Nadal screamed his way through a love service game letting anyone without hearing aids in a 500 meter radius know that he meant business and was going to take this match come hell or high water. With a 3-1 lead and his fist pump working well Nadal found his passing shots and the confidence required to make them.
Still Isner, who looked a little deflated, worked well at the net, still within reach of his opponent. But it was Nadal who was simply too stubborn as Isner became more and more weary and after four hours Nadal was victorious.
The boys produced some incredible stats:
Double faults: 1
Unforced errors: 27
Double faults: 3
Unforced errors: 58